Hassan:- “God bless America. She take care of me,” said Hassan, 48, who speaks in broken English and smokes Marlboros.

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Halkaan ka akhri

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Ahmed Hassan, who owns a small take out restaurant on Grant Street, and his niece Suna Gasmalia are part of a wave of refugees from Somalia.


African newcomers carry on the tradition of working hard for a better life

By Jay Tokasz NEWS STAFF REPORTER

Updated: 10/22/07 7:29 AM

Second of two parts

Ahmed Hassan dreams of a large restaurant, with tables and chairs and satisfied diners.

For now, he works from a cinder block stand on Grant Street, scooping Somalian specialties — curried goat and sambusas — into Styrofoam containers for takeout customers.

He counts enough money at the end of the day to pay the rent on a two-bedroom house. Most of all, he counts his blessings.

“God bless America. She take care of me,” said Hassan, 48, who speaks in broken English and smokes Marlboros.

He arrived in Buffalo nearly a decade ago as a single father with six children and little else — leading a recent wave of refugee immigrants from Somalia. Many of them live on Buffalo’s West Side, not far from Hassan’s Somali Star restaurant.

They are joined by refugees from a cornucopia of other lands: Myanmar, Liberia, Rwanda and Iraq, to name a few. Some come from rural regions with little education and few skills; others dwelt in cities and had careers as engineers and attorneys back in their homelands.

Having fled civil wars and political persecution, they continue a tradition of immigration in Western New York established more than 100 years ago when German, Irish, Italian and Polish settlers began new lives here, worked hard, put their kids through college and generally became fully Americanized.

Unlike illegal immigrants who sneak into the country, all of these new settlers are legally admitted following an intensive background check and interviewing process by the U.S. government.

Refugees arrive to a bewildering new bureaucracy of bank accounts, bus lines, food stamps, language proficiency tests and Social Security cards. For three to six months, they receive cash assistance from the government as they learn English, but beyond that they must find jobs and earn their own incomes.

Their settling-in process includes a fair share of rude awakenings and cultural disconnects.

Neighbors once called police to report strange noises from the apartment next door, where a refugee family from Africa was living, said Ann Brittain, director of immigration and refugee assistance for Catholic Charities. It turned out the family had brought home several live chickens for slaughter, as was customary in their homeland.

Similarly, a refugee at one local company caused a stir when he tried washing his feet in the cafeteria sink. Foot washing before prayer is a tradition in Islamic countries during the holy month of Ramadan, and the man was merely trying to practice his faith. The company resolved the culture clash by allowing the man to use a private room with a sink.

The infusion of refugees has been met with resistance in some local neighborhoods, where longtime residents have expressed concerns about immigrants not fitting in and being a drain on city and county resources.

“It’s not without tension here,” said the Rev. James Joyce, pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church on Broadway, where refugees from Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and other African nations attend Masses.

Adan Munye’s unusual Somali dress used to draw unwanted attention from other kids on the East Side when he first moved to the neighborhood. At age 12, he decided to defend himself against the name calling and was trounced in a street fight with several kids.

Munye laughs about the incident now. He’s 20 and works as a security guard for HSBC Bank, while also helping out at the Somali Star.

Munye dropped out of high school, but he speaks English well and hopes to earn his GED and become a police officer.

For the most part, Hassan’s children have succeeded in school. A son graduated in May from Buffalo State College, and a daughter is attending Erie Community College.

Children often thrive

Refugees usually struggle to pick up the language and find decent-paying jobs, but they scrimp and save to buy houses, and their children often thrive, said Mohamed A. Mohamed, a Somali immigrant who moved to Western New York in 1990 and now assists newly arriving Somalis.

“They come here to give their children a better future, and we see the result. A lot of them are going to UB, Buff State. Some of them have already graduated and moved,” said Mohamed, 45, a UB alumnus who works as a civil rights manager with the state Department of Transportation.

With the help of area resettlement agencies, more than 1,000 Somalis have come to Buffalo since 1997, twice the number of the next largest group, Sudanese. And no other county in New York has resettled more Somali refugees over the past decade, state data shows.

Three new Islamic mosques have opened on the West Side in recent years to accommodate the influx of Somalis, who are largely Muslim.

But like any other group in Buffalo, Somalis are looking for economic opportunity, and they’ll move to other parts of the country to find it, said Mohamed.

He sees such departures as lost opportunities for the larger Buffalo community.

Instead of spending millions of dollars demolishing dilapidated homes, the city and county could be helping immigrants establish credit, obtain mortgages and become owners of those houses, he said.

“If you bring those people, they become taxpayers,” he said. “There’s no system in Erie County government or the City of Buffalo that will say, ‘How do we promote new immigrants to come to the city?’ There’s no planning, or if there is, immigrants are not part of it.”

Can’t go home again

Most refugees understand they’ll probably never return to their dangerous homelands — a reality as difficult as anything else they’ll face in their adopted country.

“It’s heart-wrenching when someone here realizes their mother died back home and they can’t go back,” said Brittain. “In most cases, they’re never going to go back to their village and they’re never going to see those people again.”

Fidele Diing Dhan, 29, is an exception.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University at Buffalo, Dhan returned to his native Sudan in a 2006 visit marred by tragedy. His brother died in Dhan’s arms after a bus accident.

Because of his college education, the Sudanese people Dhan encountered on his journey back home assumed he was a physician. The experience made him resolve to build and equip a medical clinic and school there. With the help of St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, he’s trying to raise $35,000 by the end of the year to begin the project.

Dhan, a home health aide, is working toward a degree in nursing, with the idea that his skills could be applied both in Buffalo and in Sudan.

“If this project gets done,” he said, “there might be a need for people to work there.”

Dhan was one of the thousands of “Lost Boys” of Sudan who were separated from their parents in the late 1980s and wandered for years through forest and desert to avoid being killed as a civil war raged on. The boys who survived the ordeal eventually ended up in refugee camps, and more than 3,000 of them were invited to the U.S.

The civil war that caused Dhan to be separated from his family has ended, but poverty and strife remain, especially in the Darfur region in western Sudan, where reports of killings and rapes of women are still common.

New exposure

Immigrants like Dhan are helping bring new exposure to a continent in crisis. Dozens of area churches are now either involved in assisting African refugees resettling in Western New York or mission work in various parts of Africa.

In the 1980s and 1990s, only a few thousand African refugees a year were admitted to the United States. Since the early part of this decade, the largest refugee groups coming into the country have been from the troubled continent, which has been plagued by political upheaval, civil wars and killings.

Still, according to some immigrants, Americans are largely unaware of who refugees are and what is happening an ocean away.

“We are still an invisible minority. We are not visible yet,” said Mohamed.

Whenever he discusses Somalia, Munye said most Americans have no idea where the country is, let alone what has happened there. Others recall the popular film “Black Hawk Down,” which portrayed an attempted United Nations peacekeeping mission in 1993 that resulted in a major firefight in Mogadishu and the death of 18 American soldiers.

Often, several Somalis, some visiting from as far as Toronto, gather on summer evenings in Hassan’s front drive to sip English tea and swap stories. They ask each other about the best and worst things that have happened in their lives.

Hassan, 48, has gently graying hair on the sides of a balding top. He smiles easily, but he has experienced his share of low points. The bullet scars on his back and right arm are proof.

In the lawlessness following the 1991 collapse of the Somali government, Hassan was shot and nearly killed by a thug as he hauled home a bag of groceries.

He met Umi, the woman who would become his wife — and her five children — at a Kenyan refugee camp. Then came an even lower point: A pregnant Umi died after being bitten by a poisonous spider. The baby she was carrying died, too.

Hassan doesn’t elaborate much further on his personal calamities.

Years ago in Somalia, he owned land and ran a successful cooking oil business. “We had a good life,” he said.

In Buffalo, he’s been a dishwasher at an Amherst restaurant and a taxi driver. He’ll return to driving a cab next month, when he shuts down his restaurant for the season.

For many immigrants hailing from countries nearer to the equator, the winter cold feels almost inescapable.

Hassan has learned to embrace it: More people ride in a cab when it gets too cold to walk or wait for the bus. “I make money,” he said.

When asked if he’ll go back to Somalia, he replies that he’s not sure it will ever be safe enough.

He maintains that his life here is better anyway.

“See how I’m sitting here,” he said, “nobody bothering me and I’m not bothering others?”

jtokasz@buffnews.com

SOURCE: Buffalo News, October 23,2007

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